Now that the nation of Israel approaches the end of its fifth decade and the prospect of peace opens up, we can begin to say with greater and greater confidence that Jewry has survived the exile.
The time has come — on Tisha B’Av — to speak about the people who made this possible. This column highlights the forgotten man — perhaps more aptly described as the hero of Tisha B’Av — Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.
The catastrophe of destruction could have terminated the Jewish people and religion through mass defection and spiritual despair.
Judaism was saved by the emergence of a new leadership, soon toe be called the rabbis, which developed a program to enable the Jewish people to go on with its religious calling in a new situation of powerlessness.
Only a leadership that deeply shared the lives of its people, giving it credibility, and at the same time showed great imagination and boldness in going beyond the present condition could have accomplished this miracle.
Rabban Yochanan deserves particular credit for the combination of conservation and creativity that saved the day.
The Talmud teaches us — with a touch of tongue in check — that Rabban Yochanan was the least of the 80 leading pupils of the Elder Hillel.
This is a refreshing contrast to today, when followers of the leading rabbis of our time feel confident to tell us that they are the greatest of the generation or of many generations or even of messianic stature.
I think the Talmud meant to say that a pre-war observer would not have necessarily detected Rabban Yochanan’s stature. He rose to the occasion of the crisis.
Like most Israelites, Rabban Yochanan apparently supported the great rebellion of 66-70 C.E. Yet he came to see that the bitter civil war spelled defeat in the face of the overwhelming might of Rome.
His first insight was this: As sacred as Jerusalem was and as central as the Temple was, Judaism transcended any particular location or institution. he determined not to “go down with the ship” but to provide a setting and a saving remnant to enable Jewish life to go on. Because Rabban Yochanan had been involved in sharing Jewish fate in besieged Jerusalem, his action to carry on was perceived as loyal to Jewish purpose.
Rabban Yochanan was smuggled out of the embattled city. He was able to establish contact with the Roman leadership and gain permission to settle in Yavneh with a group of refugee rabbis.
(The Romans were looking to damp down the revolution and sought — by granting autonomy — to end the constant fighting with the Jews.)
In Yavneh, he established an academy and a study center to guide the community through Jewish law.
Rabban Yochanan and his colleagues taught that God had not abandoned the Jewish people (the Christian claim) and that God had not been mastered by the Roman gods (the Roman claim).
God had become more “hidden,” or was no longer available through the sacramental Holy Temple. This was a divine call to the Jewish people to take more responsibility in the covenant. When God is hidden, then the people must be trained to detect the divine presence everywhere.
Thus, learning and teaching became the key religious enterprise. And if God no longer spoke through prophets and priestly oracles, then people should speak to God through prayer, and discern what God asked of them by studying Torah, the past record of divine revelation and communication.
Further, the power of learning Torah is such that one who studies the laws of a particular sacrifice, it is as if the person actually brought that sacrifice.
These interpretations meant that the people of Israel could live on without the Temple. Yet in a profound affirmation of continuity, Rabban Yochanan established customs and prayers that kept the memory of the Temple alive and vivid.
For example, on Sukkot, the lulav and esrog — previously carried only in Jerusalem — were to be brought and waved everywhere that Jews lived in memory of the Temple.
Rabban Yochanan insisted that the old sacramental powers of the Temple – – expressed in the ordeal of the sotah, the wife suspected of infidelity and in the ceremony of the broken neck calf — were no longer effective.
By stopping these ceremonies, he asserted that, notwithstanding living in a world of reduced revelation, Jewish leadership could nevertheless apply the law with full authority.
The oral Torah was expanded enormously through the Talmud. Yet, he rejected the amnesia and rootlessness that follows outright dismissal of the past.
Instead, he placed the longing to return to Jerusalem as a dynamic center for Jewish life. The vision of restoration and rebuilding the Holy Temple kept Judaism on its path as a future-oriented religion of hope throughout the exile.
Rabban Yochanan had a wide variety of pupils who expanded and articulated the Talmudic tradition. Some were radical followers of messianism, others were skeptical of these claims; some were active in the later armed revolt against Rome, others insisted that only submission would preserve Jewish existence.
There is some evidence that Rabban Yochanan later “exiled” himself from Yavneh as his leadership policies outran the ability of his generation to respond to the drastic changes that were testing Judaism to its limits.
Rabban Yochanan’s life is told by the rabbis in the Talmud as a paradigm of how to respond to catastrophe. (As Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner has shown, this story should be read as an interpretative narrative, a theology of Jewish survival, not as literal history.)
The lessons of Rabban Yochanan’s life are powerful. Historic leadership should: 1) shared the life experience of its people; 2) create newly needed institutions and ideas with vision and boldness; 3) bring the past with it holistically and faithfully; 4) be ready to stretch people to the limit while encouraging and nurturing a wide range of viewpoints and policies; 5) and bring a variety of people into leadership roles and train them to be serious leaders without taking themselves too seriously.
The new era of Jewish history now unfolding will need to less.